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From Latin to computer science, Tsang did not rest on his laurels

By Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- Brian Tsang, a computer science major, is clear about why he took four semesters of Latin at Princeton: "I just felt that in order to get a complete education you need to know a little bit of Latin, at a very minimum," he said.

Brian Tsang

Computer science major Brian Tsang took four semesters of Latin at Princeton in order to get "a complete education." He has been chosen to give this year's salutatory address in Latin at Commencement.


What he did not know was that his choice of language -- along with a sterling academic record across all his work -- would bring him another benefit: The University has selected him as the salutatorian of his class. He will deliver the salutatory address, which at Princeton is traditionally given in Latin, to his classmates at Commencement on Tuesday, June 1.

Tsang, who is from Ellicott City, Md., knew he wanted to be a computer science major when he enrolled as a freshman. In his first course, "General Computer Science," he quickly outpaced the rest of the class and began rewriting and greatly enhancing a piece of software used in the course to simulate the workings of the major hardware components in a computer.

"In class, he was cruising through, but instead of just going through and getting his A+, he really pushed himself," said senior lecturer Kevin Wayne, who led the course and was impressed enough to hire Tsang to pursue the project over the summer. "He really produced, in my opinion, a professional piece of software, which is much more than you would expect in just one summer." Wayne has now adopted the tool for use in his classes and has received positive feedback from students.

At the same time, Tsang started taking Latin. "In the past, all science and math papers were written in Latin, which is why I have come to respect Latin so much," he said. "I kept going because all of my professors along the way had really interesting stories to tell about the Romans. They really kept you engaged."

During his four years, Tsang won the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence and the Pyka Prize in Physics. He was named a Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society member and received BSE Academic Achievement Awards.

For his senior thesis, Tsang worked with a group of two other computer science majors and two mechanical and aerospace engineering majors to create soccer-playing robots in an effort to advance Princeton toward participating in an annual international competition called "RoboCup." Tsang tackled problems related to how the robot navigates through its environment, creating an approach that is more reliable and uses less computing power than other methods. His adviser, Robert Schapire, called it "an extraordinarily ambitious project."

Schapire said Tsang's thesis combined computer science with geometry and physics. Tsang wanted to test his navigational idea before the other engineers had finished building a working robot, so he and his collaborators wrote an entirely new program to simulate how the robot would behave. "He did a really nice job," Schapire said.

In addition to his academic work, Tsang served as Web editor for The Daily Princetonian, a position he described as "better than any programming course" in the number of challenging real-world problems it presented. Tsang substantially restructured The Princetonian's internal Web site and data storage system and implemented a range of technological changes that vastly streamlined several aspects of the student newspaper's operations.

Tsang also served as a residential computing consultant for the Office of Information Technology and as an academic tutor in computer science. He plans to work for Microsoft next year before deciding whether to return to school for an advanced degree.

Tsang is soft-spoken when it comes to describing his accomplishments. More than a week after he learned he was selected as salutatorian, Tsang had not told his roommates or advisers of the honor. "It's not the sort of thing that just comes up in conversation," he said.